What Is Human Trafficking?

Some imagery and descriptions on this page may be triggering. Please know your limits.

Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. There are many types of trafficking: Domestic Servitude, Sex Trafficking, Forced Labor, Bonded Labor, Child Labor, Forced Marriage, and Organ Harvesting.

Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked in countries around the world, including the United States. It is estimated that human trafficking generates billions of dollars of profit per year, second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime.

Human trafficking is a hidden crime as victims rarely come forward to seek help because of language barriers, fear of the traffickers, and/or fear of law enforcement.

Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims and force them into labor or commercial sexual exploitation. They look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons, including psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability. The trauma caused by the traffickers can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help, even in highly public settings.

Many myths and misconceptions exist. Recognizing key indicators of human trafficking is the first step in identifying victims and can help save a life. Not all indicators listed are present in every human trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any of the indicators is not necessarily proof of human trafficking.

Know What to Look for and What to do

The unfortunate truth is that it may be very difficult to recognize that you or someone you know is being trafficked. Knowing the signs to look for and how to help is key to advocacy.

If you believe someone is being trafficked, or if you believe you are being trafficked, do not intervene; you may inadvertently get them or yourself hurt. Contact a confidential advocate or other victim service provider. 

The safety of the public as well as the victim is paramount. Do not attempt to confront a suspected trafficker directly or alert a victim to any suspicions. It is up to law enforcement to investigate suspected cases of human trafficking.

Potential Trafficking Indicators

These items could be indicators of human trafficking, including sex trafficking and human trafficking. There is no comprehensive list of indicators; trafficking is constantly evolving and changing.

Bodily Indicators of Abuse / Slavery / Trafficking

    • Appears malnourished
    • Bruises in various stages of healing?
    • Showing signs of having been denied food, water, sleep, or medical care?
    • Evidence of physical and/or sexual abuse 
    • Lacks health care
    • Poor dental health
    • Poor Physical Health
    • Recurrent STIs or multiple pregnancies 
    • Showing signs of physical injuries and abuse
    • Tattoos/ branding on the neck and/or lower back
    • Untreated sexually transmitted diseases
bruises are potential signs of human trafficking

Common Environmental and Living Conditions

    • High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)
    • Living in unsuitable conditions?
    • Security measures that appear to keep people inside an establishment – barbed wire inside of a fence, bars covering the insides of windows
People being trafficked are sometimes kept in cages or behind locks

Control of a Person’s Actions / Under Control of Another

    • Checking into hotels/motels, improper relationships with older males, and referring to those males as boyfriend or “daddy,” which is often street slang for pimp
    • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address
    • Appears to be coached on what to say
    • Does the person have freedom of movement? Can the person freely leave where they live? Are there unreasonable security measures?
    • Has a child stopped attending school?
    • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)
    • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
    • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)
    • Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
    • Is the person often in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
    • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or do not know what city they are in
    • Cannot go into public alone
Empty School Chair

Financial / Possession Indicators

    • Appearing destitute/lacking personal possessions
    • Does the person appear not to have a stable living situation?
    • Does the person lack personal possessions and appear not to have a stable living situation?
    • Excessive cash or material possessions, but not in control of money 
    • Has few or no personal possessions
    • Lacking official identification documents
    • Multiple cell phones and/or hotel cards 
    • No identification, or ID held by other 
    • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
    • Owning/wearing possessions unable to afford
having no cash or identification may be a sign of human trafficking

Psychological, Emotional, Behavioral Indicators

    • Avoiding eye contact, social interaction, and authority figures/law enforcement
    • Chronic runaway/homeless youth, unknown whereabouts or couch-surfing 
    • Distrust in service providers
    • Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
    • Exhibits unusually fearful, timid, or submissive or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
    • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story
    • Has the person had a sudden or dramatic change in behavior?
    • Intimate relationships with older men or adults 
    • Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
    • Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive?
    • Lack of disclosure, inconsistent or changing stories, appears coached 
    • Loss of sense of time
    • Multiple systems’ involvement (i.e. Juvenile Justice, DHS/child welfare)
    • Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior
    • Seeming to adhere to scripted or rehearsed responses in social interaction
    • Substance use 
drug use can be a sign of human trafficking

Type of Work / Employment

    • Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp / manager
    • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
    • Is under 18 and is providing commercial sex acts
    • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
    • Living at place of employment
    • Small children serving in a family restaurant
    • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
    • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
    • Youth engaged in trading sex for money or something of value

Reporting Suspected Human Trafficking

To report suspected human trafficking activity:

    • Call federal law enforcement at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security directly at: 1-866-347-2423 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
    • Or submit a tip online by clicking on any image below to redirect you.


For individuals reporting trafficking activity:

    • The U.S. Dept. of Justice Trafficking in Persons + Worker Exploitation Task Force Complaint Line: 1-888-428-7581 Open 9:00am to 5:00pm (EST)


For cases where labor exploitation is present but does not rise to the threshold of trafficking:

    • U.S. Department of Labor, Wage + Hour Division: (1-866-487-9243)


To report allegations of trafficking committed through fraud in DOL programs:

    • U.S. Department of Labor OIG Hotline: 1-202-693-6999 or 1-800-347-3756 hotline@oig.dol.gov


For information about how workers, including trafficking victims, can file a charge of employment discrimination:

    • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 1-800-669-4000 

Additional Resources

If you or someone else are in immediate danger, please call 911 or your local police.

If you want to report a potential suicide threat, please visit the following website: suicidepreventionlifeline.org

If you or someone you know is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, you are not alone. Please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224 for support. Resources are available in Spanish and for those that are deaf, deaf-blind, or hard of hearing. If you are in immediate danger, contact 911.

If you think you have seen a missing child, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 24-hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).

Use the CyberTipline to report child sexual exploitation. Reports may be made 24-hours a day, 7 days a week online at www.cybertipline.org

Resources from Other Organizations

Other organizations have wonderful resources for you. Submit others and we’ll add them.

Pay it Forward! Every $5 Gives an Online Human Trafficking Essentials Course from PBJ Learning to a Deserving Student.

Radical Empathy Education Foundation is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to ending human trafficking in one generation.